The Thursday, Mar. 10 meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission’s Master Plan subcommittee brought together representatives from the Historic Districts and Historic Properties Commission (HDPC) and Architectural Review Board/Village District Design Advisory Committee (ARB/VDDAC) with the firm BFJ Planning to discuss the peer commissions’ insights into the needs of Greater Wilton Center.
BFJ was selected last year to produce a comprehensive study examining ways to strengthen the Wilton Center Area as an attractive, vibrant, and walkable commercial core for residents and visitors alike.
Master Plan Updates
The evening began with a series of brief updates on the work underway so far. On Thursday, Mar. 3, BFJ met with representatives from the Inland Wetlands Commission and the Conservation Commission to walk the Norwalk riverfront in Wilton Center and gather observations. The exercise was an opportunity for fact-finding and ideas exchange about the potential for a contiguous pedestrian path with the river on one side and Wilton Center on the other.
Frank Fish, Principal at BFJ, praised the group and the depth of information they brought to the walk-through. “It was very helpful for understanding the whole approach to the Schenck’s Island area and particularly the riverwalk,” he said.
One issue that arose, he explained, was the relationship between the riverfront and Village Market, which uses the area behind its store for loading and garbage disposal.
“To keep running their operation the way it is, it might be dangerous to have people back there. As much as we would love to do something along there by the river, I think they would need to rearrange the interior of their building as far where they put their garbage pick-up. Otherwise you have pedestrians and bicyclists intermingling with garbage trucks.”
Sam Gardner, Vice Chair of the ARB/VDDAC and a member of the committee offered, “This is a master plan, it’s about visioning. The long view could be that this market moves. Fifty years from now? Maybe.”
Subcommittee member and P&Z commissioner Christopher Pagliaro added, “Village Market is one of our great assets in town, and bless them for that. But I have always thought that building and the function of that market should be better.”
“All of this is private property,” P&Z Chair Rick Tomasetti cautioned. “It needs to be codified and there would need be some incentive to property owners to give over the river area. One thing we know is [the riverwalk] can’t be disjointed. It can’t start and stop, it needs a realistic path.”
Jonathan Martin, project manager and senior planner at BFJ, added that in addition to the site walkthrough, his team has been adding Darien and New Canaan to the study area to gain better insight into the performance of Wilton compared to its neighbors.
Turning toward the format of the public hearing scheduled for Thursday, March 31, Martin and Christine Jimenez, a planner at BFG, shared that the gathering will include several audience activation elements to increase engagement. For instance, a live poll will allow attendees to vote on their cell phone about whether they feel the goals of the 2019 Plan of Conversation and Development (POCD) are still valid today.
Historic Districts and Historic Properties Commission (HDPC)
Turning to the guest groups joining that evening, the subcommittee first welcomed Allison Sanders, chair of HDPC, and Lisa Pojano, vice chair.
“I thought I would start by speaking to the fact that we’ve been thinking a lot about historic buildings and how they fit into Wilton,” Allison Sanders explained. “We went back and looked at the many comments in the POCD that referred to historic buildings as being important to the town.”
“There are 14 historic buildings on Rte. 7 from Wolfpit to Pimpewaug, one historic district, two historic cemeteries. That is a lot of fabric. And the way things are happening on Rte. 7, I would characterize those as ripe for redevelopment. In the midst of many considerations, please remember that these historic landscapes are important to many people in town.”
She noted that on the topic of adaptive reuse in particular, the repurposing of old buildings for new uses alongside new development is a greener alternative to tear downs.
Tomasetti pushed back a bit. “We would all love lower scale but there is an economic reality. For proof, all you have to do is look north to the adaptive reuse on Rte. 7. It was a short term band-aid. The days of the architecture firm and the doctors’ practices populating those old houses — we’ve missed it. You can see the decay north of Cannondale. We have to be careful that that’s not what happens on this stretch.”
Discussion then moved on to the concept of relocating the historic buildings along Danbury Road to a consolidated location where their history can be celebrated and promoted, an idea that was met with enthusiasm by much of the group.
In conclusion, Allison Sanders stressed that the priorities of HDPC for the master plan could be summarized as: Sense of place, scale, and knowing that people in town want the historic fabric to remain in town. She also noted that the 2020 Harriman report, commissioned by HDPC to evaluate ways to incentivize historic preservation in commercial districts, was sent ahead of time to the commission for their consideration.
“Many developers come here because they like the town and how it looks,” she added. “We don’t need to look like Norwalk. There is no value in that — we need to look like Wilton.”
Architectural Review Board/Village District Design Advisory Committee (ARB/VDDAC)
Presenting on behalf of the group, chair Rob Sanders opened his presentation by discussing the evolving role of ARB/VDDAC, a recently-created advisory subcommittee of P&Z.
“At times when dialogue has been possible — such as with 200 and 300 Danbury Rd. — I think we have been able to change the course of those developments for the better, while communicating some of the values of the town of Wilton,” he said. “But that’s reactive, not proactive. The purpose of the master plan is to be proactive.”
He then went through a presentation of guiding principles for the process, beginning with a suggested mission statement that read “To re-envision Wilton’s Village Center as a walkable downtown that includes a mix of commercial, residential, and community uses.” A series of accompanying goals is outlined below.
Following the presentation, P&Z Vice Chair Rotini expressed mild frustration that clearer design guidance was not offered by ARB/VDDAC. “From my perspective, I was hoping that you guys would handle some of these design decisions for us,” she said.
Rob Sanders explained that ARB/VDDAC is still a young committee. “We’re finding our sea legs,” he said.
Pagliaro added for further explanation, “We don’t have the vernacular in Wilton. Edgartown has that, they’re just reinforcing a set vernacular — so their design standards are more clear.”
Several commissioners discussed the need for a balanced approach to design guidelines: nothing didactic enough to turn developers away, but also not so lenient that the town’s architectural character diminishes.
“If we end up with a cookbook here, we have failed,” said Geddis. “We are not Shaker Heights, Ohio.”
Finally, members of the BFJ Planning team brought up a perception that Wilton’s town approval process is unduly onerous, making opening a business here harder than it would be in a neighboring town.
Pagliaro objected to the premise. “One of the reasons I wanted to get involved in this commission is I thought that this was a naysayer town that stayed tied to the fence too long. This is my fifth year on the commission and I don’t think we’re a difficult town to get approved.”
“What I think is we get crap applications because the bar is set so low,” he explained. “No one walks into Greenwich Avenue with junk—but we get a lot of junk.”
Geddis also shared a series of slogans she had created for consideration and general inspiration:
- Wilton: Woodlands, water, and walking
- Wilton: River, recreation, renewal
- Wilton: Town and country on the river
- Wilton: Village on the river
In conclusion, Tomasetti urged his fellow subcommittee members to think big. “I love the fact that we have Rise Doughnuts, they’re great. But everyone is like ‘Oh my god, we have Rise Doughnuts!’ It shouldn’t be such a deal for us today to get Rise Doughnuts in town. We need to think bigger than doughnuts.”
The first public hearing for the Wilton Center master plan will be held on Thursday, Mar. 31 at 7:00 PM. The Planning & Zoning Commission will hold regular meetings on Monday, Mar. 14 and Monday, Mar. 28.
And for those not looking to think bigger than doughnuts just yet, Rise will open in its new location at 28 Center St. in Wilton Center on Sunday morning.